When I met director Anubhav Sinha early this year, he was basking in the success of his latest release, Article 15. Although he did not want to reveal much about his next film, tentatively titled Thappad, he was more than happy to talk about the film’s lead actor—Taapsee Pannu. “She brings honesty to her characters,” he said. “She works with a lot of passion.” Pannu had played the lawyer Aarti Mohammad in Sinha’s film Mulk (2018).
Sinha is not the only director to vouch for Pannu. While editing the spy thriller Baby (2015), director Neeraj Pandey found something special in the actor, who featured in a small sequence shot in Nepal. “I knew [the sequence] would lend itself beautifully to another feature starring the actor,” he told me when Naam Shabana (2017), a spin-off from Baby starring Pannu in the lead, released. Others like Shoojit Sircar, Sujoy Ghosh and Anurag Kashyap, who have worked with her, also swear by Pannu. She is happy that directors and producers want to work with her again and that she is busy with the kind of films she wants to do.
I met her ahead of the release of Mission Mangal, in which she plays a scientist alongside Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan. “Since the last time we spoke, a lot has changed for the better,” she told me, referring to our earlier interaction in 2016, a few weeks after the release of her film Pink, which was a turning point in her career. She left her job as a software engineer in 2010 to act in the Telugu film, Jhummandi Naadam, and made her Hindi debut in Chashme Baddoor in 2013. But it was with Pink that she truly came into her own. Many people told her that the success of Pink would turn out to be a curse, and that she would not be able to repeat it. So she worked hard on her skills and took up diverse roles.
“It kind of threw a challenge at me to outdo myself, repeat [the success] and make myself better,” says Pannu. “Even now when I do a film, I try to do better than the previous one.” The actor has won high praise for her performances in recent films. She played a typical Bollywood siren in Judwaa 2, a conflicted young girl in Manmarziyaan, a hockey player in Soorma, an incisive lawyer in Mulk and a shrewd felon in Badla.
Right now, she is “in a very happy, stressful stage”. “I am really confused about how I will manage nine films in one year because I want to do them all,” she says. “And these are the nine that I have chosen after hearing some ninety [scripts] maybe. I do not want to let go of a good script. It has taken me a really long time to come to a point where I have become the first or the second choice for a good role, and where I am in a position to pick and choose. People have started thinking that I can do a particular role. I may sound a little greedy, but I am trying to see if I can accommodate all of them in 365 days.”
She has no complaints about the kind of varied roles she is being offered. “You name it and I have it,” she says, adding that even if her films might not be the conventional, big-ticket ones, she knows they tell beautiful stories. Her next film is Saand Ki Aankh, in which she co-stars with Bhumi Pednekar. The film tells the real-life story of two octogenarians—Chandroo and Prakashi Tomar—who won many awards in sharp shooting which they learnt after turning 60. She wanted to do a film in which she shared screen space with another heroine and such an inspirational story seemed the perfect choice.
“When I choose these stories, I only think of whether I will spend my hard-earned money to buy a ticket to watch it,” she says. “Will I spend three hours of my life to go watch this film?”
She has always been mindful of how well her films do at the box office and cares that her producers do not make a loss. In fact, it is her business acumen that is helping her to branch out to fields outside cinema. In the last five years, she has invested in two businesses—a wedding planning company, The Wedding Factory, and the Premier Badminton League team, Pune 7 Aces. “I have done this because I wanted to, not because I was supposed to,” says Pannu. “It has not been out of necessity but interest.” If The Wedding Factory lets her connect with the middle-class milieu and, in a way, shapes the characters she plays, the Pune 7 Aces helps keep alive her interest in sports. “I am in awe of sportspeople,” she says. “Irrespective of what sport a person plays, I love their discipline and hard work. I wanted to be connected to that in some way.”
One wonders, however, how she makes time for all this. In the last three years, she has starred in at least five films, both in Hindi and South Indian languages. She also has numerous projects in the pipeline. She takes an active interest both in her badminton team and the wedding company.
“That is because the one thing I am clear about is that movies are not the do-all and end-all of life,” she says. “I see that as my job and I love my job. I have a ‘cut’ and a ‘pack-up’ [time]. I have a home that is as important as my professional life. I am not compromising on the time that I spend with my family and friends. Neither am I compromising on my personal growth as a human being.”
Time management in such a scenario would seem challenging but Pannu makes it sound easy. “I feel like the phrase ‘jack of all trades’ was coined for me,” she says with a laugh. Even as a child, she says she balanced studies, sports, dance competitions and debates, excelling at most of them without being overwhelmed. “Even now, I do not want to dedicate my entire life to one thing,” she says. “I want to make the most of life.”